The middle-aged clerk at the sundry shop touches her brown, feathered hair, gazing appreciatively at the bodies pushing into the main exhibit hall at Phoenix Civic Plaza for the National Rifle Association convention. "Lotta men in town, inn't there?" Well, yeah. Lotta guys wearing tee shirts with slogans like "Political Correctness Offends Me." They've traveled long distances to fondle incredibly expensive, tremendously destructive weapons.

None of the guns are loaded--or even for sale. It's a manufacturers' show. And you have to check your own firearms at the door, to the dismay of the throng of goateed photojournalists desperately seeking a shot of a heat-packing militia nut.

In fact, no one uses the "m" word all weekend. The most heated exchange at the 124th annual NRA convention is between a woman from Wisconsin wearing a khaki NRA safari shirt and her son, who's in the throes of the terrible twos and unwilling to relinquish a family-size bag of potato chips. The kid's shrieks can be heard all over the plaza.

Along with 23,000 gun lovers, about 400 journalists representing every news organization imaginable--from Rolling Stone to French TV to Advertising Age--have come to Phoenix to cover the NRA convention.

There are even some gun-loving journalists, particularly Arizona journalists. Gun lovers or not, they've all come expecting a crossfire, or at least a couple of good pistol whippings.

It's a reasonable expectation. The NRA--winged in recent years by internal strife, nagging debt, the Brady Bill and the assault-weapon ban--reloaded and came out blazing in last fall's congressional election. Within the past few weeks, the organization exchanged public barbs with President Bill Clinton after last month's bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.

A fund-raising letter from NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre Jr., sent a few days before the bombing and referring to federal law enforcement officials as "jack-booted government thugs," drew so much ire, it forced the organization's leaders to the unthinkable. They apologized. (The sting of apology is no doubt soothed by the knowledge that the fund-raising letter is expected to raise more than $6 million.)

In the past, NRA leaders have not been shy about airing dirty laundry at their annual conventions. Second executive vice president Neal Knox, a longtime NRA figure who has been in and out of favor over the years (he's currently in), made a failed attempt to oust then-executive vice president Harlon Carter in 1983--the last time the convention was held in Phoenix.

This year promised to be a doozy.
On April 29, the Washington Post reported a plot by Knox to unseat president Thomas Washington and replace him with first executive president Marion Hammer. LaPierre would be ousted and replaced by chief lobbyist Tanya Metaksa. Hammer and Metaksa--who has been known to say about the spelling of her name, "It's 'AK,' as in 'AK-47,' and 'SA,' as in 'semiautomatic'"--are considered tougher than Washington and LaPierre.

According to the Post, "The bomb that ripped apart the federal building in Oklahoma City April 19 has also blasted open a schism in the nation's most influential association of gun owners."

By the time they got to Phoenix, however, the oozing wound had been dressed, and the NRA powers were intent on keeping it that way. There was a concerted effort to suffuse the convention with cool professionalism.

So reporters spend their time in Phoenix bumping into each other and the swarm of wide-smiling, omnipresent flacks who wear red ribbons on their chests and make sure the large media room is stocked with soda, sparkling water, Danish pastry and lots of NRA propaganda. Even the NRA logo on the media packet and credentials is soft and user-friendly: no eagles, no rifles, just the letters "NRA" arranged in hues of brick, eggplant and moss. Very Nineties. It could be a Kenny G album cover.

There are no attempts at mutiny. Other than Clinton, the only enemy identified is the press. And the sound bite of the weekend--a message from LaPierre to Clinton--is underwhelming: "I'll tell you who we are. We are the people who helped clean out Congress in 1994, and who are going to help clean your clock in 1996!"

Could he have meant to say "Glock"?

The NRA that gathered in Phoenix was as chastened as an unruly teenager in detention.

There was scant evidence of the organization that depicted the rape of the Statue of Liberty on the cover of its official publication, The American Rifleman. Just last month, LaPierre had written in his infamous fund-raising appeal:

"Not too long ago, it was unthinkable for Federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens.

"Not today. Not with Clinton."
And last June, in a special report in The American Rifleman, LaPierre asked, "How long are the American people going to put up with this sort of thing? It is popular at this time to compare the behavior of our uncontrolled Federal agents to that of the Nazis in the Third Reich. It may be that that is a valid comparison, but the Nazis are long ago and far away, whereas the ninja in the U.S. are right now in full-cry and apparently without fear of any sort of control. They move mainly at night. They conceal their faces. They use overwhelming firepower and they make almost no effort to identify their targets. They are scarier than Nazis--who at least never concealed their faces."  

Neal Knox, who once told reporters that the way to end the civil war in Somalia was to arm mothers with AK-47s, wrote a column for The Shotgun News last December in which he suggested that perhaps the assassinations of former president John F. Kennedy (an NRA member, by the way) and Martin Luther King Jr. were part of the conspiracy to take guns away from Americans:

"Is it possible that some of the incidents could have been created for the purpose of disarming the people of the free world? With drugs and evil intent, it's possible. Rampant paranoia on my part? Maybe. But there have been far too many coincidences to ignore."

Yet Americans have more guns today than ever before.

Instead of spicy rhetoric, there's birthday cake and sweet talk from some Arizona politicians. One of the first events of the convention is a party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Institute for Legislative Action, the NRA's lobbying arm.

The cakes are decorated in red, white and blue--ubiquitous hues throughout the weekend, appearing on tee shirts, neckties, scarves and, probably, undergarments.

But Representative Matt Salmon wears a pink shirt to make his speech before a few hundred birthday partyers. Lobbyist Tanya Metaksa makes the introductions, taking some deserved credit for Salmon's victory. (The institute dumped $4,500 into his coffers during the '94 campaign, and as of March 1995, had given him another $2,450.) Metaksa assures the crowd that Salmon is representative of the freshman class in Congress: "Most of them think and talk just like Matt."

Sounding more like Governor Fife Symington than his formerly moderate self, Salmon takes the mike and tells the crowd he likes chain gangs.

A roar!
He likes term limits for federal judges.
Another roar!

In fact, he likes all term limits, and he explains that when his colleague, Democrat Barney Frank, said he didn't think the Founding Fathers intended for there to be term limits, Salmon told him, "Yeah, that's because they didn't know you!"

Then it's Arizona House Speaker Mark Killian's turn.
According to Killian, the solution to the violence plaguing society isn't gun control. It's the Boy Scouts organization, which teaches children "to morally stay straight."

Then there's an award for Graham County Sheriff Richard Mack, whose challenge to the Brady Bill is currently being litigated.

Metaksa stokes the feel-good flames: "Today, all of us are friends. We are all brothers and sisters in the fight to protect our Second Amendment rights."

That's today. But tomorrow is the members' meeting. Mutiny! A storm of militia! Great footage!

Naaaah, says Charles Creekmore of Richmond, Missouri. "I know Clinton and them's expecting some fireworks, but I don't think it's gonna happen."

Mr. and Mrs. Charles Creekmore have hooked up with Mr. and Mrs. Wesley Creekmore of Odessa, Texas. Charles and Wesley are brothers. Their wives aren't NRA members; they just like to come to the annual conventions when they're held in nice cities.

They like Phoenix, and they like the big steaks at Rawhide, where the NRAnians gather Friday evening. All four Creekmores enjoy the musical stylings of Louise Mandrell--Barbara's younger sister and a "lifetime" NRA member. She's got long, black hair and a short, black dress.

Despite Mandrell's attempts to get the NRA to rock to her show--a Solid Gold-meets-Hee Haw medley of country songs and oldies--the crowd's pretty stiff. It does cheer for Pedro the Cuban back-up singer, who just became a U.S. citizen.

There's hard alcohol for sale, but most people stick to the free beer. All are back on the bus and back in their rooms by 11.

The members' meeting is the next morning. The NRA claims 3.5 million members, but fewer than 10 percent are eligible to vote. And of the 23,000 who attended the convention, about 1,500 bothered to attend the membership meeting.

The leadership made its reports, offered a united front and a few sound bites and batted back the meager attempts at dissension. A resolution calling for "no more apologies" was quickly withdrawn.  

The Creekmore brothers made it through about half of the all-day session, then retired to the Saguaro Lounge, where their wives were people-watching. "To the news media, it was dull as heck," Charles says, pleased with his prediction. "It's not exciting," Wesley agrees. The real excitement, most say, is next door in the exhibit hall. You can't buy a gun, but you can touch and point and view and even test thousands of them. And you can sign up for an NRA Visa card and get a free pocketknife. Show off that NRA affiliation with golf balls, a tie, a cardboard windshield protector. And check out the latest firepower and accessories: firearms from the Imperial Russian Armory, night-vision goggles, expandable bullets, fatigues.

And there's the "Pillow Pal," a bedside holster that slides between the mattress and the box spring. According to the brochure, it also makes a good remote-control holder--and it's just $10.95.

Bill Pape is a devoted NRA member, but he didn't come all the way from Columbia, Missouri, to hear boring speeches. He's here in the exhibit hall to check out the merchandise and report back to his friends at home--they'll be really jealous.

Like most multimillion-dollar corporations, the NRA doesn't care much about what its members think, Pape says. LaPierre's thug comment was a "dumb thing to say," but both sides overreacted. He doesn't mind the ban on semiautomatic assault weapons as long as he can keep his hunting rifles and handguns.

Ruby Fox isn't interested in the members' meeting, either--even though she's been intensely involved with the NRA for decades. Fox is a three-time Olympic shooter. She won a silver medal in 1984. With her French manicure and pearls, the 49-year-old grandmother is a walking advertisement for the NRA; in fact, years ago, they used her in an "I'm the NRA" ad campaign.

For Fox and her husband, Art, both Parker residents, NRA conventions are reunions. They wander the exhibit hall, visiting with old friends. She won't get into the politics.

"It's best that I just concentrate--for myself--on the competition," she says. The Foxes plan to skip the evening's banquet, featuring chicken pesto, chocolate cake and a stump speech by presidential hopeful Senator Phil Gramm of Texas.

They've got reservations at Vincent's.

The banquet begins with "The Star-Spangled Banner" and a video presentation filled with inspiring shots of people with their firearms, with their flag and sometimes with both.

Eagles soaring. Flags flapping. People at target practice. Bombs bursting in air. A chunky white guy in an undershirt watching as a flag is raised. The Bill of Rights. Minority children singing as fireworks explode. (With the exception of two African-American NRA staffers, the children in the video were the only African Americans spotted during the three-day convention.)

A prayer, then Governor Fife Symington, card-waving NRA member, to introduce his buddy Gramm. He reminds the NRA assemblage to hold fast to both the First and Second amendments. "It's easy to see a matched set of guarantees against government power"--an interesting statement, considering the governor's penchant for suppressing public records.

Over jicama citrus salad, Gramm tells the crowd that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio should be the director of the federal prison system and that his fondest memories are of "mah fahther teachin' me how tah shoot."

The NRA gives him a handmade rifle, the crowd goes nuts and there's a mass exodus. The reporters are filing their stories; everyone else needs a smoke. Despite the NRA's glossy production, the fringe element is evident.

Outside Phoenix Civic Plaza, two middle-aged white men quietly hand out leaflets published by a group called the National Alliance. When questioned, one simply points to a passage titled "America's Problem: Race, Not Guns."

Three or four decades ago, according to the pamphlet, "there were no drugs or gang violence in the schools. There were no drive-by shootings." The pamphlet says that burglary and armed robbery were rare.

"It was a White America. . . . Crime and violence came to America as a direct and immediate consequence of the loss of racial homogeneity in American society."

The pamphlet warns supporters to keep a low profile--for now. "Keep your firearms out of sight, but within reach. The day will come for using them. The day for a great cleansing of this land will come. Until that day, keep your powder dry.

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